FOXBOROUGH — With Wes Welker on pace for another Wes Welker kind of season, the teammate who may end up being Welker’s replacement someday is looking for his own role on the Patriots.
Ever since being drafted by the Patriots in the seventh round in 2009 and making the conversion from quarterback (the Patriots were pretty set there), Julian Edelman has returned punts, and earned some snaps as a receiver. Late last season, he even played a little in the secondary.
After having a solid training camp, Edelman was rewarded with more playing time at receiver, especially in the home-opening loss to the Cardinals, when he started in place of Welker and was on the field for 73 of the Patriots’ 80 offensive plays.
He was headed for a similar ratio the following week at Baltimore, but hurt his hand late in the first half and did not return. The injury cost him the next three games and he finally returned in the 29-26 overtime win over the Jets Oct. 21.
The injury interrupted the momentum Edelman had built over the summer and the first 2½ games of the season. Now that he’s back on the field, will the same role be there for him?
“I really don’t have the decision on that,” Edelman said after Thursday’s practice. “I come in to work, I look at the game plan, I look where they have me at, and I go in and study it as hard as I can, then execute it to the best of my ability.
“Coach [Bill Belichick] brought me here, and so I respect that, and whatever he does — I mean, he’s a mastermind — and we’re winning games, any way I can help this team, that’s why I’m here.”
Edelman found himself in the middle of a delicate situation early in the season, at least in the eyes of many Patriots fans, when it appeared he was taking playing time away from Welker, who led the league in receptions last season and is the club’s all-time receptions leader. Both are short slot receivers, and with Edelman’s snap counts increasing, Welker’s were decreasing.
That changed when Edelman and tight end Aaron Hernandez missed games because of injuries. Welker’s four highest snap-count percentages this season came when Edelman wasn’t available, for all or some of the game: Baltimore (89 percent), Buffalo (96 percent), Denver (89 percent), and Seattle (88 percent). Since Edelman has returned, Welker’s snap counts have dipped again, to 80 percent against the Jets and 68 percent in the blowout win in London over the Rams.
Now, as then, Edelman chooses not to insert himself into any playing-time controversy. With Welker once again among the league leaders (60 receptions, 736 yards), perhaps there isn’t one.
Edelman then (after the loss to Arizona): “You know, we just all come in here and, speaking for myself, do what the coaches tell us to do. I’m here to contribute to the team, and if that’s getting snaps, if that’s playing special teams, it’s whatever they say. All I’m going to do is take the coaching and try to contribute to this team.”
Edelman now: “Finding a role? I’m just doing what the coaches ask me to do. You know how the Patriots are, the coaches come up with something every week, and whatever my role is that week, I’m going to do whatever I can to do my best at what they want from me. Like I keep on saying, I’m here to help contribute to the team, and whatever that is, that is.”
This much is certain when the Patriots welcome the Bills to Gillette Stadium for a 1 p.m. game on Sunday. Edelman will return some punts (he is the franchise’s career leader in punt return average, at 11.9), and he’ll have a chance to catch some passes from Tom Brady.
Edelman’s receiving numbers for the season resemble a good game by Welker standards: 13 catches, 100 yards, 1 touchdown. There is a discrepancy in their production, and an even bigger one in salary: Welker is playing this season under the franchise tag, and is making $9.5 million. Edelman is in the final year of the four-year, $1.8 million contract he signed as a rookie out of Kent State. He’s earning $615,000 this season. Both Edelman and Welker are scheduled to be free agents after the season.
What role either might have with the Patriots going forward will be decided at another time. Knowing their roles now can help win games.
“They want us to be open, catch the ball, and make plays,” said receiver Brandon Lloyd. “It’s pretty clear. Obviously, Wes is going to catch most of his balls inside, [Rob Gronkowski] is going to catch most of his balls over the middle, and I’m going to catch the majority of mine outside.”
Where does that leave Edelman? Besides returning punts, that is, and he even shares that duty with Welker, who has 108 return yards to Edelman’s 80 and a higher average of 13.5 yards to Edelman’s 8.8 despite one fewer return (eight).
“I would like for us to win,” Edelman said, somewhat deflecting the question. “We’re thinking about the Bills, not my role. I’m thinking about getting open on all these guys out there and how to make plays.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.